Month: May 2015

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, Narrated by Jay O. Sanders

I first read Catch 22 about 20 years ago.  I took a well-loved paperback off of a shelf in my dad’s home.  The margins of its yellowed pages were crammed with his notes.  I still have that book.  It is being held together with duct tape and will power.  What I remember most about that first reading is that I felt simultaneously inspired and demoralized by it.  It was, it IS, an amazing book.  The story, the characters, the prose… the combination of it all was enough to break my heart.  When I think that Heller wrote this book as an undergrad, it depresses the hell out of me. I was reading that book at the same age Heller was when he wrote it.  I could barely cook myself dinner.  I still had to have my mom call me and wake me up so I wouldn’t sleep through final exams.  How could a kid my age write something this insightful and mature?  And why for the love of everything couldn’t I?

What is it that makes this book so unbelievably great?  Is it that Heller uses words like sibilant and Saturnalia without skipping a beat?  Or is it the way that he plays with the timeline so that the order of events is muddled and yet the narrative stays clear?  Or is it the characters that are both so absurd and so true to life?  Or is it maybe the fact that I feel like I am there, really there, experiencing with Yossarian and Dunbar and the rest those long periods of boredom colored only by summer camp like shenanigans until they are interrupted by terrifying episodes that remind us (as if we could forget) that there is a war going on?  Is it that this book about World War II written in 1961 feels like it could have been written yesterday about any group of soldiers anywhere?  It is all of that and so much more.

I can not bear the thought of the pages of my dad’s paperback crumbling under my touch, so the book stayed in its spot on the shelf and instead I listened to the audio recording narrated by Jay O. Sanders.  Sanders is the perfect narrator for this book.  His expressive intonations are just… perfect.  Did I already say that?  Well, sue me, but it’s true.   He strikes just the right notes of desperate hilarity and exasperated terror.  His Doc Daneeka is spot on.  Really.  He sounds like the characters sounded in my head.  And that is high praise coming from someone who had to make some serious mental adjustments to Roy Dotrice’s ah-maaaz-ing narration of the Game of Thrones series.  In fact, the only qualm I have with this audio recording of Catch 22 is the seemingly random insertions of military music.  I wouldn’t mind the music, but I feel like I am missing something about why it is placed where it is.  The music plays spontaneously in the middle of chapters and at some moments of significance, but not others.  I couldn’t make sense of it, so I did my best to ignore it.

So, obviously I think that everyone who has never read this book should read it (or listen to it) and those that have read it should reread it, but to the Catch 22 virgins I will issue a warning.  This book is hilarious until it isn’t.  It is weird and funny and the inherent unfairness of life is surreal and comical until it stops being even a little funny and then it’s Kafka on a bad trip but still so artful and eloquent and soulfully true that you want to slow down and read every word one letter at a time to try to soak up all of their meanings.  Keep your thesaurus handy (sibilant means making a hissing sound, by the way) and enjoy.

Boxers by Gene Luen Yang

I love graphic novels.  I love that they force the writer to be minimalist with text and that a talented artist can make even a cartoonish sketch reveal emotional depth that comes across as corny when a less talented writer tries to put it into words.  I love how the size and position of the cells on the page can change the way we feel about the story being told.  Yang has a classic comic style.  His story is presented in rectangular frames with minimalist backgrounds and expressive facial features.  He doesn’t make the reader work too hard to follow the story line, which is just fine since this story is rich enough to stand on its own.

Boxers is a graphic novel retelling of the Boxer rebellion from the perspective of Little Bao, a young boy from a small village.  Bao, upset by the humiliation of his father at the hands of foreign militia men, is driven to become a soldier for the cause of Chinese nationalism.  After learning Kung Fu and an additional secret ritual that calls ancient gods to battle Bao becomes the leader of a quickly growing group of warriors bent on taking back their country from Western influencers.

If this were all that Boxers had to offer, it would have been enough.  I love a good Kung Fu story with the traditional elements of secret nighttime trainings and a son avenging his father’s honor.  Throw in some magical realism and I’m hooked.  But, Boxers is so much more than that.  In Boxers, Yang has captured the ambivalence of a young man thrust into a leadership role that he wanted, but could not possibly be prepared for.  Little Bao is confronted with hard choices and makes them with a certainty that he immediately second guesses.  He is led by the strength of his seemingly undying convictions and is conflicted when these same convictions evolve as only a young person can be.  Boxers is a sympathetic and unflinching look at familial, religious and nationalistic identity and the truth that sometimes people do terrible things for “good” reasons.

The companion book, Saints, told from the perspective of a Chinese convert to Christianity, is in my ever growing pile of books to be read.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

I saw this delightful post from Book Riot – and it made me think of The Girl On the Train.

I… I just didn’t love this book.  I wanted to love it.  I even told myself I loved it for the first few chapters, but I just didn’t love it.  I bought this book.  With real money.  In hardcover.  I am a library girl through and through.  When I do buy books I like to stumble upon them in thrift stores and yard sales and in those nearly mythical used bookstores that are always hiding just over the next horizon. I paid RETAIL for this book, people.  IN AN AIRPORT.  That’s how much I was sure that I was going to love this book.  That’s like… a zillion dollars.  Do you know how many copies of Cat’s Cradle I could have bought with that money?  They said it was suspenseful and interesting and edge of your seat-y.  They said it was a page turner.  They said it was the new Gone Girl.  Let me tell you something… They lied.

The Girl on the Train is depressing and not in a “the future is so bleak” or an “I am just a mote of dust in a vast uncaring universe” kind of way.  It was more like a “well, there goes several hours of my life I will never get back” kind of a way.  The heroine is pathetic.  And yes, I know she is supposed to be pathetic so, well done, I guess, but that doesn’t make her or her story any more compelling.  The crime she is investigating is about as boring as a missing person case can be.  The people involved are sad, but not despicable.  Not the kind of people you love to hate and root against and want so badly to see get what’s coming to them.  Nope.  Just sad people living workaday lives and bad things happen to them and it all feels so pointless and uninteresting. Except for the villain who you don’t know is awful until all of a sudden you do and then that person is SO AWFUL (look at me not spoiling with gender specific pronouns!), but the discovery doesn’t feel like an accomplishment at all.  Something was hidden from you and then it was revealed, and it’s just not satisfying enough.  It didn’t feel like an aha! moment when it all came together.  Just… oh, so that’s what happened… huh.

Oh well, they can’t all be winners.  And, if you aren’t following book riot, let me just suggest that you do that now.

Lifted By the Great Nothing by Karim Dimechkie

Over Memorial day weekend I read Lifted By the Great Nothing by Karim Dimechkie.  A coming of age story about young Max Boulos, a Lebanese immigrant in late 20th century New Jersey.

As the novel began, I was impressed by Dimechkie’s honest portrayal of adolescent Max.  Max is solitary and awkward and painfully relatable.  His social isolation is not due to his status as a foreigner (this is nothing noteworthy in his diverse, east-coast community), but to his acute self-awareness, his motherless-ness and his self-imposed role as caretaker for his father, who needs more caring for than either of them really knows.  Rasheed “Reed” Boulos, Max’s dad, has shed his Lebanese culture along with the rest of his past in his attempts to reinvent himself and Max as “Americans.”  I loved them both from the start.  As the story progresses, however, Dimechkie’s characters become less complex and true and devolve into, well, characters.  Reed’s gold-digging, barely post-adolescent girlfriend, Kelly, is never quite believable.  Nadine, the mother-earth-sex goddess neighbor is too smart, too sensual, too mature and just too much all around.  Even Max and Reed, as they age, become more like outlines of people than people themselves.    As a teenager and young adult, Max’s most realistic attributes are his most adolescent attributes.  His quick and sullen anger, his impulsiveness and his inability to feel sympathetic towards his father are believable and congruous with the story line and his character.  The rest feels sadly false and I found myself falling out of love with his character as he grew into a teenager that had a preternatural awareness of his own depth of emotions and thought, but couldn’t seem to put together a complete sentence in conversation.  The characters were artful in their conception, but the delivery waned as the story progressed.

The story… At its heart, Lifted By the Great Nothing is Max’s quest to learn the truth about his mother, a woman whom he knows only as a collection of sometimes contradictory stories as told to him by Reed.  His quest spans years and continents and does not tie up neatly, which is just fine by me.  About halfway through I began to worry that I had unwittingly stepped into a narrative that would culminate with the September 11th terrorist attacks, but thankfully Dimechkie did not turn a deeply personal story about identity, loss, and love into an emotionally manipulative recollection of a shared tragedy.  In fact, the event is almost conspicuous in its absence.  Which isn’t to say that the book is free of politics.  Armed conflicts in the Middle East are deftly depicted both as a spectator sport for American liberals and as events that shape every aspect of life for the residents of Max’s native Lebanon.   Max’s ambivalence as he attempts to make sense of both international and familial politics artfully drives the narrative forward in the latter half of the book.

If you are a crier, this book will likely make you cry.  It will also make you think.  It won’t make my top ten list this year, but it is an impressive debut novel and I will definitely read his next one.

Books n’at

I like to read.  I like to talk about books.  I like to hear what other people have to say about books.  I have lots of opinions that nobody wants to hear… and thus, books n’at was born.  Welcome! Read, respond, share.  Let’s talk about books n’at!

A complete and ongoing list of what I am reading in 2016 can be found here.